Jacob Heilbrunn

Goodbye to the Three Amigos

The New York Times is marking the passing of the three amigos, as they were apparently dubbed by the now-disgraced Gen. David Petraeus, with an elegiac article about their contributions to foreign policy debates. The piece suggests that the three comrades--Senators Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham--represented a bipartisan era in foreign affairs that is passing away. With Lieberman's retirement, so we are told, an era is over.

It's a venerable theme. The notion is that once upon a time there was a golden age when the two parties cooperated with each other to further the national interest. The true story, of course, is more complicated. Fights over foreign policy have always existed. Consider the XYZ affair. President John Adams had asked Thomas Jefferson to act as an envoy to the French. Jefferson refused and focused his efforts on strengthening the nascent Republican party. So much for bipartisanship. Consequently, Adams sent his own three amigos--Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney--to negotiate secretly with the French to put an end to attack upon, and seizures, of, American merchant ships. Adams had to contend with the neoconservatives in his Federalist party--Alexander Hamilton and others--who were champing at the bit for war against the French. At the same time, the irenic Republicans mistrusted Adams' peace feelers, fearful that they were bogus. Even as these disputes percolated, a Quasi-War erupted with France, one that was ended by the Convention of 1800.

The examples of domestic divisions over foreign affairs could be multiplied. It was really after World War II that the myth of bipartisanship took off. It wasn't rooted completely in fancy. Republicans such as the young Congressman Richard Nixon supported the Marshall Plan and Arthur Vandenberg, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, jettisoned his previous isolationism. But during the cold war disputes raged over foreign policy as well. It was hardly a time of comity.

The sight of Lieberman, McCain, and Graham seemed, however, to offer a reminder of better days. But did it really? The truth is that McCain was in some ways less a Republican than a neocon by the late 1990s. McCain began his political career as a traditional Republican realist but then became progressively more enamored of what amounted to neoconservative views, which, after all, had their origins in the Democratic party in the early 1970s, when a group of cold war Democrats became disaffected with their party's drift toward George McGovern. For his part, McCain's unusual saga began in Bosnia where he endorsed American intervention. McCain became increasingly more hawkish toward Iraq and Russia. Now Syria is in his target sights.

But are McCain and Graham about to suffer a loss of prestige? According to the Times, what is at stake may be as much about GOP foreign policy as it is about bipartisanship. At a moment when the GOP has become increasingly isolated as President Obama pursues a more cautious course abroad--no intervention in Syria, withdrawal from Afghanistan--Lieberman's retirement could pull out a vital neoconservative strut:

For Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, the loss of Mr. Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent who is the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, goes beyond personal deprivation and could profoundly affect their ability to influence foreign policy. Though he frustrated many Democrats with his interventionist ideas, Mr. Lieberman gave Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, both Republicans, a veneer of bipartisanship that lent credibility to their policy goals.

If this theory is true, it could have significant implications for Republican Party foreign policy, which has been mesmerized by neocon doctrine for at least a decade. Perhaps the problem with American foreign policy is that there has been too much conformism and not enough dissension in recent years. Might a form of emancipation take place in which a more sober view of American interests replaces the ebullient neocon nostrums?